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Lone sheriff's dispatcher manages phone center



Published: Wed, February 2, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



A veteran operator is managing the office since layoffs began.

If you called the Columbiana County Sheriff's Department with an emergency last week, you got lucky.

There were no instances that life-saving help delayed because the lone dispatcher was backed up with other calls, said Marilynn Wickline.

She's a 15-year veteran dispatcher, able to juggle multiple phone and patrol car radio calls simultaneously. But that didn't mean her job was easy the first three days last week, when budget troubles meant half as many ears to the phone.

Sheriff David L. Smith cut the dispatch center headcount in half, leaving five full-timers. The five part-time dispatchers Smith laid off had allowed the office two dispatchers on duty most of the time. That gave the dispatchers a chance to prioritize calls when up to five lines were active at once.

Even with the budget cuts, Smith has juggled the schedules to keep two people on the job during the busiest shifts: Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. He also promised to pay overtime -- and figure out the finances later -- during crunch times of really bad weather or unusual bursts of emergency calls.

Juggling act

Watch Wickline, and it's easy to tell she knows what she's doing.

But even she was stretched during a 3 to 11 p.m. shift early this week. She had five lines lit up in the small, electronics-packed room in the basement of the jail, a few miles west of Lisbon.

One woman was waiting to file a harassment complaint against a neighbor who was feeding her dog.

Another said she saw a wolf and wanted to report it to wildlife officers.

A third was the proprietor of a market, one of two Negley businesses hit by armed robberies recently. She wanted to say she tripped an alarm, and there was no need to send a deputy.

The chief from East Palestine was on another line trying to get information on a suspect.

And an alarm company was waiting on a fifth line to report a signal at a residence on Votaw Drive outside of Lisbon.

"I put them on hold as they keep coming in," Wickline said as she shuffled back and forth from one computer to another, then to the radio buttons, then to the fax machine.

Emergencies take priority

She scratched hurried notes with a red pen every step of the way so she could write her reports in the next available moment.

"The biggest thing is if you get multiple emergency calls. Take domestic abuse calls. You don't want to put them on hold. We want to keep them on until a deputy can get there, especially if weapons are involved. In a big county like ours with only two deputies out there, it might take 20 minutes," she said.

A moment or two after she said that, a woman called with a domestic abuse complaint. Her brother had threatened her and her children, and she thought he was outside.

Wickline, probing for details with an urgent but soothing voice, kept the woman on the line. But two more calls came in and Wickline, a 55-year-old mother of five and grandmother of seven (with one more on the way), ratcheted back and forth between the near-frantic woman, the other callers and radio conversation with the deputy on the way.

Wickline called off the deputy when she got the woman to look outside one more time. The caller decided the man wasn't there after all.

"The hope is that you answer the emergency call that has to have answers first, and you just have to decide and do it in a matter of seconds," she said.

Large patrol area

Columbiana is the 22nd-largest county in Ohio by population, with 115,000 people. Its 533 square miles make it the 13th-largest by area of the 88 counties.

Smith is in court trying to get a judge to lift an order preventing him from laying off five of the county's 17 deputies. County commissioners, bucking lower property tax collections because of factory closings and other economic bad news, cut Smith's 2005 appropriation to $2.17 million -- $270,000 less than his allocation for last year.

Down in the jail basement, Wickline has a lot of things to monitor.

Four phone lines handle sheriff complaints, three are for Liverpool Township police and fire calls, two are for 911, five alert her to various volunteer fire departments and after 5 p.m. the sheriff's business phones bump down to her.

All of the arrest warrants for the county pass over the dispatchers' desk. At any one time, the county has about 2,500 warrants active, Wickline said.

She and her fellow dispatchers track down Social Security numbers and criminal histories and put the information in the National Crime Information Center database by typing on the keyboard of one of the two computers in front of her.

The dispatchers also gather much of the same data for applicants for concealed weapons permits and personal protection orders.

"We put [CCW information] in the system so when an officer pulls over a car they know that the driver holds a permit, and there might be a gun involved," Wickline said.

Then there are the phone calls from reporters representing four newspapers, three television channels and multiple radio stations.

'Know what I have to do'

In the back of the room stands a coffin-size, glass front cabinet with shelves holding electronics.

"Oh, that's for the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Plant," Wickline said. Every dispatcher within 10 miles of it has the cabinet.

Turn a key dangling in the 7-foot-tall box and you're interrupting TV and radio programs with an emergency broadcast. Punch a button and sirens go off around the county.

Has a Columbiana County dispatcher ever had to do it?

"Once," she said. "They had a fire over there. I don't think about some of this stuff. It's just here."

Wickline, at ease in her maroon golf shirt and khaki pants as she rolls in her chair a few feet here and there to various panels of equipment, added: "I am the type of person who can handle an emergency. I know what I have to do, and I do it. "

She said she manages to stay unflappable.

Usually.

About a year ago, she got a call from a woman who found her 2-year-old boy dead.

One of Wickline's grandsons died at age 2.

"That happened to me. I did CPR. I knew what that poor woman was going through, and it was ... difficult."




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